In the early 1990s, Eritrea was off the grid and disconnected from the internet as there was no reliable email system or any international modem access. The main telecommunication infrastructure at the time was being repaired after it had been destroyed by Ethiopian colonialism.
Consequently, the cost of making international calls was around $3 a minute and this was unbearable for foreign visitors, diplomats and Eritreans trying to communicate globally. All that changed in 1995 with the contribution of a visitor from the US by the name of Robert Van Buskirk who was a Fulbright Scholar working at the University of Asmara’s Physics Department. During his stay in Eritrea, he was yearning for a cheap alternative rather than calling at an expensive rate to his family in America. He was envisaging a way to communicate through e-mail as a cheaper alternative but the technical limitation and access was the main issue. Fortunately, Robert’s personal motivation led him to get support in making that desire be realized thanks to his friend in the United States who had advanced experience with popular open source Linux operating system. Both Robert and his friend with, additional contribution from tech-savvy Eritreans in the diaspora as well as local students, were able to help create Eritrea’s first email system. In essence, the configuration and installation of the email server with the Linux operating system was free to acquire and matched the precise need for the email system. As a result, the email system was operating with high efficiency, minimal hardware utilization and without any major headaches and financial expenses that occur with closed sourced software or proprietary software like Microsoft. From 1995 to 2000 Eritrea’s email system was running on an efficient and free open source operating system and the benefit for that time was tremendous ,with low cost to the state. This was all possible due to free & open source software (FOSS).
What is FOSS? According to the well-known programmer and free software activist Richard Stallman, FOSS refers to any software which may be copied and used freely. The software is often available free on the Internet, so it can be acquired in Eritrea for the cost of the time it takes to download. Unlike proprietary software, open source software can be copied, used, studied, modified, distributed locally with few or no copyright restriction.
Although the concept of free software has existed since the early 1960s, proprietary software still attracts great support and usage globally like the popular Microsoft. People in developing countries like Eritrea use proprietary software because of easy available pirated software and because educational institutions teach proprietary software and not FOSS like Linux. Piracy of Microsoft products keeps the state of Eritrea dependent, less secure and does not help with localization of software usage. Bill Gates was quoted in saying “it’s easier for our software to compete with Linux when there’s piracy than when there’s not.” Eritrea’s technological self-determination is contingent on warding off dependency on proprietary software as much as possible and making advancement with FOSS.
Nevertheless, it is for this reason that internationally, independent-minded governments are adopting and implementing open source software as a way to gain national technical sovereignty and take local ownership. In 2004, the Venezuelan government enacted a legislative measure to authorize the use of open software in government agencies and other public institution. One of the main motives for introducing the decree was to help the government realize its aspiration to strengthen its technological independence and offer the public free & equal access to software. Likewise, Cuba ,in 2009 released its own local version of Linux operation system called Nova, and it has been making updates since 2015. Nova has has been in development since 2007 and it was originally based on Linux version of Gentoo, which is popular with advanced users. The Cuban government was persuaded to make a transition from being dependent on Microsoft Windows by Richard Stallman. During the introduction of Nova in 2009 ,Cuba’s Communications Minister Ramiro Valdes was quoted as saying “Private software can have black holes and malicious codes that one doesn’t know about,” and emphasized, “The free software movement is closer to the ideology of the Cuban people, above all for the independence and sovereignty.”
With this in mind, the state of Eritrea can tap into the potential of FOSS in order to charter an independent technological path that can reduce software costs, develop local IT industries, and bridge the digital divide in the country. What is more FOSS can help the state meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and have more control over its national security. As a matter of fact, for being accessible and free the Linux operating system is gaining global IT industry popularity. Not only does Linux help reduce expense but it also offers customizability, interoperability, efficiency, and security.
Eritrea is at a crucial stage as far as advancing its IT infrastructure, developing ICT policy, and designing academic courses. This is the right time to put in place state policy on open source initiatives to encourage early independence from foreign proprietary software. Ministries and the public sector in general should be encouraged to transition toward open source alternatives to cut cost down by reducing reliance on software imports and external vendors. This initiative would promote the transfer of technology, provide stable and better software, savings in foreign exchange, promote security and localization. For example, governments from developing nations like Cuba and others have already adopted open source initiates and policies to cut cost and encouraged local innovation and ownership in software. In conclusion, Eritrea could follow the same path and potentially become the African hub of open source initiative and create local ownership and employment.